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Talkin' Blues

Talkin' Blues with Chuck Leavell

By Published: May 1, 2012
AAJ: Readers should know you didn't try to copy these pioneer players, but I was curious which ones come closest to the Chuck Leavell style—as a fan, I would guess Leroy Carr and Otis Spann, but of course I want to ask the master himself.

CL: It's a great question. As you know, of course I had to do a Ray Charles track, because he is my true musical hero. So we looked hard to find something that was very early Ray, and we found "Losing Hand," which is kind of little known. So because I've always loved his playing and he's been such an influence on me, certainly his name would be at the top of the list.

Otis Spann, you're absolutely right, same with Leroy Carr. One interesting thing for me was to get more into stride playing, like Charlie Spand, who wrote "Back to the Woods," and the Leola Manning track that Candi Staton sang on certainly has that. So that really expanded my horizon and caused me to start practicing, because I'd never really done that much stride playing—you know, back-and-forth left-hand bass-note octave, and then the chord behind it.

AAJ: I would encourage anyone who buys the album to listen to it first with a pair of really good headphones. I love the way the upright bass reinforces your left hand, and the recording really lets you hear what your two hands are doing.

CL: Thank you. Your comments about stand-up bass are absolutely right on the mark, and I think Chris Enghauser just did a marvelous job.

I wanted to do 90 percent upright bass on this because it helps to authenticate my intention to focus on that era because, naturally, stand-up bass would have been prevalent. And, as you mentioned, I wanted to reinterpret the songs and not copy them—to do them in my way and find approaches that would perhaps modernize them, but still pay tribute to the real masters who did these things.

AAJ: Another thing I found interesting—before your CD, I knew Leroy Carr's classic "Blues Before Sunrise," but I wasn't really aware of him. Yet he was an amazing composer. I noticed five of the 15 songs on Back To the Woods were composed by Carr. It's great to see him getting his due on your album.

CL: He's such an interesting figure, and a tragic figure in a way, because he was a terrible alcoholic who drank himself to death in his early 30s. But he was incredibly prolific with his partner Scrapper Blackwell, the guitarist who played on so many of his recordings. They were working and recording all the time.

I knew about Leroy and had listened to a lot of his stuff, but Steve, my son-in-law, really enlightened me to the wealth of material that was out there. I had a slight concern about having that many of his songs on the CD, but at the end of the day, I listened to all of it thoroughly, and thought it doesn't really matter whose name is on the thing or who we are covering. I wanted to make sure the record has a nice flow to it. I wanted to get across the general point about the importance of this era, especially the prewar era. You know, we did jump ahead with Otis Spann and Ray Charles, but most of the material is prewar era, which was a very interesting time for piano blues.

AAJ: I remember, as teenagers, we used to say a song was an "ear-worm" if you couldn't get it out of your head. "Naptown Blues" is a total ear-worm for me, and I should mention Danny Barnes' vocal. I'd heard his name in relation to banjo, but on your album he plays guitar on five tracks and does the lead vocal on "Naptown Blues." He doesn't have what you would objectively describe as a great voice, but kind of like Bob Dylan, it's extraordinary what he does with what he has. It is a total ear-worm, really infectious.

Danny Barnes RocketCL: That's great to hear. He's got a new record called Rocket (ATO Records, 2011) that I would encourage you to check out. You're going to absolutely love it. Another one of his that is one of my all-time-favorite records is called Things I've Done Wrong (Terminus Records, 2001). Those are two really great records. I bet I've listened to Things I've Done Wrong at least 150 times, and I never get tired of it. That's how I really fell in love with Danny.

He was actually on a label that our daughter's husband Jeff Bransford owned. Jeff happens to be Steve Bransford's brother, our other son-in-law. My daugher Amy sent me the Things I've Done Wrong record, and I couldn't get enough of it—still can't.

Danny and I became friends during that time period when he was on Terminus Records. We had talked about doing a project together that would be very much the Leroy Carr, Scrapper Blackwell kind of thing. It never came together in that particular form, but when I started this record, I knew I had to get Danny because he knows this stuff so well. He can do a great job with the guitar because he gets it, he knows what I'm going for. It was a joy and a pleasure to have Danny, and I think you know I'm about to do the New Orleans Jazz Fest April 27th, and I'm flying Danny down because I want him in the band. Bonnie Bramlett is going to do the vocal Candi Staton recorded, and it's going to be a lot of fun.

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